150 years ago the dental profession fought against denture patents

This column continues our recognition and celebration of the ODA’s 150th anniversary. In my last column, I discussed the founding of the Ohio State Dental Society (as the ODA was then known) in June of 1866. A distinguished group of dental leaders gathered in Columbus and wrote and adopted a constitution and bylaws creating a statewide dental association for the first time in Ohio and also wrote and adopted what is believed to be the first written code of ethics in dentistry, which served as a model for the ADA’s Code of Ethics adopted just a few months later.

The group that assembled on those two warm June days in Columbus faced many more issues than just creating the governance documents and establishing a code of ethics. One such issue was the battle over the use of vulcanite rubber for denture bases.

Prior to the 1850s, dentures were often made with wooden or ivory bases. These dentures were hard, uncomfortable and often ill-fitting. They were also expensive to make. In the 1850s, vulcanite rubber was identified as a firm but flexible and durable material that was perfect for use as the base of dentures. The vulcanite rubber base could be molded to the patient’s gums making the denture better fitting and more comfortable. The vulcanite rubber base also made it possible for dentists to make dentures relatively inexpensively, making dentures accessible to many more people who could now afford to have “false teeth.”

The Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company of Boston held the patent on the “improvement in Artificial Gums and Plates” using vulcanite rubber. The company enforced the patent by requiring all dentists who wished to utilize vulcanite rubber for dental prosthesis to pay for a license and also pay a royalty on each denture they produced. The company’s treasurer, Josiah Bacon, enforced the patent with vigor. According to various reports at the time, Bacon was aggressive in harassing and threatening litigation against dentists who did not pay the license or royalty fees. Bacon utilized threats and intimidation to get dentists to comply with his demands. Apparently, one of his strategies included hiring a “beautiful young lady,” giving her money and sending her into a dentist’s office with orders to entice the dentist to make her a “rubber” denture. Once the dentist acceded to the patient’s request, Bacon had the evidence he needed to go after the dentist for the license and royalty fees.

The Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company would publish three different lists: those dentists who had purchased its license, those dentists who were under injunction to cease using vulcanite rubber in their dental prostheses, and those dentists who were being sued by the company for using vulcanite rubber.

In the spring of 1866, the founding members of the Ohio State Dental Society struggled with how to fight against the aggressive tactics of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company. In fact, the group called a subsequent meeting in the fall to consider a plan of action. At the meeting in Columbus on Nov. 1, 1866, the members passed a motion stating that “the dentists of Ohio refuse to accede to the demands of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company.” The “Dental Times: A Quarterly Journal of Dental Science,” reported at the time that “the feeling appears to be almost unanimous in the (dental) profession” that the actions to enforce the patent are “an attempt at wholesale swindle under the cover of law.” Every member of the Ohio State Dental Society was asked to give $10 to a fund that was set up to support dentists facing litigation from the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company and to support a lawsuit challenging the patent. The following year, in 1867, the Ohio State Dental Society pledged to raise $800 to support a Massachusetts dentist who was engaged in litigation to “resist the unjust and extortionist demands of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company.”

One of the legal challenges to the patent made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in 1876 in favor of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company finding that the patent was valid and enforceable.

The battle over the patent, however, did not end there. At the 14th annual meeting of the Ohio State Dental Society on Dec. 3, 1879, the members passed a resolution calling for the statewide dental society to “respectfully urge our Senators and Representatives in Congress to use all honorable means to prevent the reissue of the … patent, covering the making and use of vulcanite plates for artificial teeth.”

A perhaps more impactful action occurred earlier that year. Dr. Samuel P. Chalfant was a dentist from the state of Delaware who refused to pay the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company’s license and royalty fees. Bacon brought action against Chalfant causing him to flee Delaware and open a practice in St. Louis, and later San Francisco. In each location, Bacon followed and hounded Chalfant. It all came to a head in San Francisco, when, following another court action brought by Bacon, Chalfant went to Bacon’s hotel room and shot him dead. Chalfant, who was hailed as a hero by some in the dental profession and as a “pirate” by the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company, was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to prison.

Following Bacon’s death, the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company was much less aggressive in enforcing its patent, and two years later, the patent expired. Dentists were then able to use the vulcanite rubber without paying Goodyear’s license and royalty fees or fearing legal action and other harassment. The use of vulcanite rubber in dental prostheses was common for the next several decades until acrylic resins emerged as the preferred denture base for most dentists.

As you can see, the founding members and the dental profession faced serious challenges in those early years. In a future column, we will discuss the society’s first efforts at legislative advocacy, which was also an issue in 1866, just as it is today.